The last time one of James Ellroy's seedy California crime-fiction opuses was brought to the big screen, 1997's L.A. Confidential, the result was one of the sturdiest Hollywood entertainments in many years. That film was directed by Curtis Hanson (8Mile, Wonder Boys), one of the finest movie technicians around but not the kind of auteur known for leaving a personal imprint.
The latest Ellroy adaptation, The Black Dahlia (the novel is the first of an "L.A. Quartet" that includes L.A. Confidential), is a different matter altogether, matching the pulpy Ellroy with a director who would seem to fit his stylistic temperament -- Brian De Palma (Carrie, Scarface) -- especially considering the subject matter: a fictionalization of Los Angeles' most notorious unsolved murder, the 1947 killing of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, whose body was found -- bisected, disemboweled, and drained of blood -- in a South Central vacant lot.
But, instead, The Black Dahlia is a fascinating misfire. The movie is one-third conventional Ellroy adaptation(à la L.A. Confidential), one-third De Palma personal cinema freak-out, and one-third film-noir cliché. And though there are some fascinating scenes, performances, and moments here, the movie's parts never cohere.
The film-noir stuff is a drag because Ellroy's always been dismissive of the lone private-dick shtick and because it seems beneath such intense material. As far as the Ellroy/De Palma clash, some elements of the film bring the book to life: an opening boxing match between young cops and future partners Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), the richly conceived squad-room scenes, the fashion-forward décor of the house shared by Blanchard and his damaged consort Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson).
But the film's clunky compression of the investigatory detail in Ellroy's novel makes the movie's mystery aspect nearly incoherent and makes the fictional solution of the actually unsolved case that Ellroy conceives seem ridiculous (which it almost was in the book).
De Palma also fails to capture the emotional obsessiveness not only of Ellroy's book but also of the case itself. Characters say the right things but the movie doesn't feel it, despite the intense performance of Mia Kirshner, who plays Short in a few screen tests and one stag reel. The utter sadness and metaphoric richness of the Black Dahlia story -- the innocent who comes to Hollywood dreaming of stardom and is devoured -- is beyond this movie's grasp.
Where The Black Dahlia does work is as a potential midnight movie. The director goes too far in replacing the book's biggest subplot (Blanchard's disappearance in Mexico) with a more concise invented scene that's just an excuse for a familiar stylistic set piece, complete with Vertigo reference and gratuitous gore. But other gambits fare better: The first, incidental glimpse of Short's abandoned body is brilliant. And the ghoulish dinner scene where Bleichert meets the family of a Dahlia-obsessed femme fatale (a captivatingly weird Hilary Swank) is delirious macabre comedy. Given all the parties involved, The Black Dahlia is a disappointment but a memorable one.